[cross-posted at European Tribune]

I am extremely disappointed by the tone of the debate over at Eurotrib with regard to nuclear power, that resulted from the thread about the Nobel Peace Prize going to the IAEA.

It was largely promulgated by those who are gung-ho for nuclear power. Branding those with serious concerns as `extremists’ is 1) pathetic and 2) right up there with framing tricks used by the neoconservatives. Blegh. Oh yeah – and total bullshit.

No, I don’t agree with Greenpeace’s rather ridiculous criticism of the IAEA. I am not a fan of Greenpeace in general, and think they have rather lost their way – although I am not of a mind to throw out their many earlier achievements just because the organisation now raises serious concerns for many.

That notwithstanding, what a ridiculous straw man, to use the fact that Greenpeace is against nuclear power to dismiss all other concerns about a proliferation of nuclear power as a process; and worse, to dismiss serious questions about whether nuclear power can actually contribute significantly enough to reducing greenhouse emissions to be worth pursuing.

Let’s go through some actual facts shall we?
Sources in no particular order:


I’ll acknowledge right here and now that there are better sources in hardcopy articles and so on I’ve read, but I’m writing this in a hurry at lunchtime, at work, and make no apology for using the links I could find, most of which have at the very least credible citations.

I’ll add further that the Australian Conservation Foundation is not ‘extreme green’ by any stretch of the imagination, being an organisation with many years of credible work, and is an NGO regularly given a seat at the table to provide a viewpoint for government decisions; – although I’m sure notwithstanding, some of you will be inclined to so stretch.


Nuclear power is extremely expensive, and currently economically marginal at best
The process of extracting, processing, enriching and transporting ore, and building nuclear power plants is incredibly expensive – so much so that most nuclear power plants around the world operate currently only with government subsidies. It would cost several trillions of dollars to replace the majority of existing and potential coal powered stations with nuclear, and they would need subsidies. A fraction of that amount of money poured into renewable energy technology research and development is  a far sounder investment, especially given that renewable energy is already contributing more global power than nuclear is.

On top of that, the IAEA itself estimates that for 70% of power to come from nuclear, an average increase of 115 x 1000MW power stations per year would need to be built. The International Panel on Climate Change has suggested Europe alone would need to build six times more reactors than it currently has by 2100; yet the average plant takes 10 years to build; so factoring in the time delay, we are looking at a race against time where the odds are very significantly stacked against nuclear power being an affordable and viable option for decreasing greenhouse gas emissions in time.

In fact, despite the growth of nuclear power in developing countries, the IAEA is predicting an overall decline in nuclear energy, and predicts it will contribute about 13% of global energy needs. No wonder then, faced with a declining, over-subsidised industry in Europe and the US, the nuclear business is seizing on climate change as it’s saviour to revitalise a demonstrably unviable venture. Have you perhaps been sucked in the propaganda? But wait, there’s more!

You need uranium rich deposits to get a net energy/greenhouse gas gain
Currently to be viable, existing nuclear power plants are taking advantage of the richer uranium ore deposits; but once the ore drops below 0.01% – which most known uranium ore deposits are – it takes more energy to extract the ore than it will produce. At 0.05%, you are putting in about half of the energy that you will eventually extract.

Greenhouse gas emissions from power generation are not our main challenge
When you then add into the above that power generation accounts for 20% of greenhouse gases, and over half, for example, comes from transport and machinery, the greenhouse gases produced by the process of extracting low-grade uranium ore will be much greater than the reduction achieved by going nuclear. It also paints a crystal-clear picture that the trillions we could spend on rapid nuclear power expansion could be much better spent on renewable energy development, including looking at our transport systems.

Uranium-rich ore, and uranium ore in general, is highly limited
Well, you’re probably thinking, there’s plenty of uranium-rich ore, right? Wrong. In fact, one paper recently calculated that if every coal-powered station in the world was converted to nuclear, we would run out of uranium ore in 9 years, and that includes all the known, speculative and weapons-grade uranium in the world – so clearly even if only 30-40% of coal power converted to nuclear, it would last at best for maybe 30 years, and on top of that, would pump out more greenhouse gases and use more energy that it would generate, because those plants would have to use low grade ore.

Fast breeder reactors are not an answer
`Aha!’ You’ll say – “point 4 above is only valid when you consider conventional reactors. What about the new fast breeder reactors, which are far more efficient?” Well, yes they are, except there’s that teeny-tiny problem that they use liquid sodium to cool them, which as every good chemistry student knows, explodes when it comes into contact with air. The fast breeder reactor technology has not been satisfactorily finalised and signed off as acceptable technology – so much so that even Japan has had major safety problems with it, and it significantly raises the risk of nuclear power, an already high-risk (see below) process.

Nuclear energy is not greenhouse gas neutral
One of the biggest furfies of the industry. In fact calculations show that it produces a similar amount of greenhouse gases as natural gas stations; add that to points 2-4 above, and why are we bothering again? Indeed, if nuclear energy is so `clean and green’, one wonders why the global community denied the nuclear industry clean fuel credits, which are reserved for truly greenhouse neutral, renewable energy sources.

The safety of nuclear power generation is about more than rarity of incidents
Back to that question of risk. People love to cite how `safe’ the industry has been. Yet as any risk analyst knows, risk assessment is not just about the likelihood of an incident, it’s about the magnitude of the impact of that incident. One word:  Chernobyl. Rather than run down the long list of extensive environmental and health impacts, this is a link to a study carried out by the OECD’s Nucelar Eneregy Agency.

If you think making an area the size of Switzerland uninhabitable is an acceptable risk I question your mental faculties; and besides, please stop and multiply that incident by the heightened risk of about 1000 more nuclear power plants around the place, many in developing nations that hardly have a record of a) safety or b) tectonic stability – for example. Factor in the expected increase in natural disasters as the climate change we’ve already helped trigger kicks in, and the risk of nuclear power generation starts to rapidly climb. Nuclear power is now being aggressively pursued by both India and China, both of whom have appalling modern environmental and public safety records. Anyone notice the major earthquake on the highly active Indian subcontinental plate recently? No reason to mention it of course, just a red herring – not.

The point being that while yes, nuclear incidents are much rarer (at present), their impact is of such a potential magnitude, and the effects are so difficult to ameliorate, that the very low rate of incident is not sufficient enough of a justification for pursuing nuclear power. Then there is the thorny issue of nuclear waste, and uranium mining (see below)

The impacts and risks of uranium mining
I can only give an Australian perspective here, which is nevertheless a critical one, given that Australia contains about 40% of the world’s uranium deposits. The uranium / nuclear industry loves to hold up Australian mines as models of minimal environmental and public health impact. And if you weren’t aware of the long history of suppression of the reporting of incidents at Australia’s biggest uranium mine, Ranger, and at Jabiluka, you would probably agree. Yet since operation began in the late 70s /early 80s there have been over 20 incidents of leaking radioactive mine process water, lack of control of uranium-rich dust, contamination of employees and the nearby environment, all at the Ranger mine alone.

Did I mention that both these mines sit in the middle of the Kakadu World Heritage Area, one of the largest wetlands in the world, and home to over 2 million migratory and endemic birds and is a global biodiversity treasure? Or that the objections of the indigenous Australians were over-ruled on their own native title to allow the mining to happen? And that they’ve never seen a dollar of the millions of royalties they were promised? Or that the presence of the mine has trashed their spiritual birthplace and caused massive social fragmentation and decay that is literally seeing an entire tribe of people driven to extinction?

But where was I? Oh yes, the impacts of uranium mining. Australia’s other two uranium mines are located in South Australia. There, they were allowed to use a nifty process involving a leaching process using sulfuric acid, which is then dumped into the local groundwater aquifers, the by-product including the acid and numerous heavy metals, and the US mining companies are not required to rehabilitate this mess. It’s a treat – and surprise! It’s mainly happening on Indigenous land as well.

In short, a discussion about seriously turning to nuclear power to partially solve the coming climate change crisis must look at the entire life cycle of uranium extraction and use; and it must factor in that currently the sovereign control of nations in being the sole determiner of the safety, appropriateness and ethical extraction of uranium is demonstrably not satisfactory – putting what is a major abuse of human rights and breach of the World Heritage Area principles and protocols politely.

Nuclear waste
Just to make sure the Indigenous people of Northern Australia don’t survive more than a few more decades, our government is currently spruiking what a great place Northern Australia would be for a global nuclear waste dump. I hear the native owners of Yucca mountain are really thrilled by it’s use as the USA’s waste dump too. But heck, asking the highly marginalised and abused native peoples of the world to sacrifice what’s left of their rightful land for global nuclear dreams is completely reasonable.

Yes, there have been significant and welcome strides made towards a method for the safe storage of nuclear waste, and yes, it has to go somewhere. Are you willing to have it? Who should? Do you trust individual governments to come up with the right solution to this? I sure as shit don’t. Here is also where the nuclear industry has really shown it’s true colours. It has repeatedly, for however many years, refused to confront the issue of nuclear waste.

Yet if we are to seriously consider building maybe up to a thousand more nuclear reactors, we are going to need  a new Yucca mountain -style facility every few years (that’s being kind and ignoring the fact that nuclear waste stored at Yucca has every likelihood of leaching into the major groundwater aquifers that supply most of the freshwater to Southwestern USA). And we still lack a process for dealing with the waste we’ve got – such as the quarter of a million tonnes of high-level nuclear waste sitting around without a safe home right now.

A bunch of miscellany relating to all of the above
I’ll leave off the actual emissions from plants for now, but will point out that the speed with which we would need to build nuclear reactors a) is prohibitive to new, cleaner, more efficient and safer nuclear plants being developed and sufficiently tested in time, b) is prohibitive to developing nations building nuclear power plants with sufficient safeguards, c) is similarly prohibitive to appropriate measures for dealing with nuclear waste to be satisfactorily developed and d) in the absence of a globally negotiated system to deal with entire nuclear cycle and look specifically at the highly contentious issues of native title, environmental and social impacts and who stores the waste – a process that takes years to hammer out – a proliferation of nuclear power will almost certainly result in more appallingly unjust and unsound decisions being taken by governments, that are simply unacceptable in terms of their human and environmental impacts, when measured against our current standards.

The risk of nuclear proliferation
– is so bleeding obvious (and just go see what the IAEA has had to say about it) that it’s not worth spending more time covering it.

So let’s recap:

1)we probably can’t afford the number of nuclear reactors we need, nor can we build them in time, and the number of them we need means we’d soon be using low-grade uranium which takes more energy (and greenhouse gases) to extract than it delivers.

2)We’d run out of all known and speculated uranium supplies within about 30 years.

  1. Even with high-grade uranium ore, it’s not a greenhouse gas neutral process, being on par with natural gas power plants.

  2. While renewable energy sources such as solar and wind indisputably have environmental costs, they are a) genuinely renewable b) we’d get far more bang for our buck if we invested in renewable energy, which is already outstripping nuclear in terms of provision of global energy supply and c) they do not come with the additional rare but very high impact risk of another nuclear accident, nor do they generate lethal waste that we don’t know how to dispose of.

  3. The risk of the whole nuclear cycle has been consistently downplayed and obfuscated by the nuclear industry and governments such as my own, which have very large vested interests in nuclear power continuing and expanding. Yet with a little research, there is ample evidence of unacceptable risk and impacts from current uranium mining, the power plants themselves, and nuclear waste.

Conclusion: significantly expanded nuclear power is at not a viable part of the `solution’ to energy generation and reduced greenhouse gases, and one that comes with an extremely high price tag in terms of environmental and human impacts from it’s entire life cycle.

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